Monro’s Song Cycle Will Blow Your Mind

As a society there is little doubt these days we are over-stimulated. With cell phones and laptops and BlackBerrys and Facebook, we are never far from the demands the world has placed on us. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy. Canadian musical theatre actor/musical director/composer (seriously! He’s a triple threat!) Jonathan Monro’s new song cycle Variations on a Nervous Breakdown explores how stress, pressure and the postmodern experience manifests itself, often subtly, in different people’s lives. It is currently receiving its world premiere at Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ontario.
On its own, Monro’s show is comparable to the song cycles of New York composers Jason Robert Brown and William Finn. His rhyming talents are sheer brilliance; he proves his ability to write in various styles and genres of music, the songs are funny, and fun, poignant, and beautiful, insightful and smart. Most of all, Variations on a Nervous Breakdown is about stories and character. The songs all exist in the same world, encouraging the audience to make connections and appreciate how the stories compliment and contrast with one another. Most impressive, is that most of the stories Monro tells are variations on themes that you thought you knew. Each character seems entirely unique, the situations are quirky, and yet there is a sense of familiarity blanketing it all because, if we’re being perfectly honest, everyone is a little bit crazy and we all fight nervous habits and self-destructive thoughts. Every song, and each moment in the song, is an honest reflection on the character’s experience, nothing is filler or passed off as genuine simply because it was a cheap laugh or happened to fit the music.
The four actors in this production are extraordinary. Cory O’Brien has a fantastic voice and sings a particularly charming song about the woes of being a penny. Chilina Kennedy is a glorious dancer and beautiful singer and shines especially bright in “I Wish I’d Grown Up in the Twenties.” Patricia Zentilli is utterly hysterical throughout, and demonstrates clearly her talent for knowing how to strike the balance in taking comedy as far as she can to elicit the right response, but never crossing the line and losing the profound sincerity that makes her performances so rich and beautiful to watch. Her gorgeous voice is always the vehicle through which her nuance characters are created in earnest. Jonathan Monro, with his voice like butter that would melt in your mouth, is equally genuine in his performances while demonstrating perfect comedic timing and an amazing array of accents. His performance of “Who I Am” is the production’s amazing showstopper, and “Rumba Raylene” will you have you crying in hysterical laughter. Also particularly noteworthy is Sam Strasfeld’s fantastic choreography in “Ashtanga Conga” and the amazing Reza Jacobs’ inspired and spirited piano playing.
In all, this show is more than worthy of a run in Toronto- if not New York- but it is significant that it is being given its world premiere at Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie. Arkady Spivak, the Artistic Producer of Talk is Free, has shown that he is dedicated to the development of new Canadian works, especially Canadian musicals. He uses his artistic position to foster and encourage and promote Canadian artists, artists like Jonathan Monro, who no doubt will go on to bring Canadian musical theatre to the world stage. Spivak is also dedicated to fostering a theatre community in the township of Barrie, and has recently acquired the lovely New Barrie Performing Arts Centre. It is inspiring to see how passion and dedication can bring dreams to fruition and help indigenous theatre in this country to continue to grow and thrive.
I hope you will support this continued venture and this brilliant show. In a celebration of breaking down, you’ll jump up and cheer.

Variations on a Nervous Breakdown plays until December 6th, 2008 at the New Barrie Performing Arts Centre, 1 Dunlop Street West, Barrie, Ontario. There are shows at 8pm Wednesday to Saturday, 11am matinees on Wednesday and Thursday and a 2pm matinee on Saturday. For tickets call the Box Office at 705-792-1949 or visit the website at Buses run to Barrie frequently and cheaply from Toronto via Greyhound ( and drop you off at a station within walking distance to the theatre. It may be snowy there, but you’ll be glad you went.

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